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Female Cadets Participate in Physics Conference at Princeton

Inside the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Princeton University in January.

LEXINGTON, Va. March 10, 2023 — Four cadets participated in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Princeton University in January. Grace Waters ‘23, Talli Tarring ‘24 (President for WiSE), Abby Fiorillo ‘25 (Vice President) and Angelina Garcia ‘25 were the four in attendance and are all members of the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) group at Virginia Military Institute. 

Waters also presented her capstone research results, “Multi-wavelength Polarization Measurements of Be Stars,” that she worked on with Col. G. A. Topasna, VMI professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  

The conference was held Jan. 20 through 22. The cadets were sponsored by the American Physical Society to attend the conference, according Col. Daniela M. Topasna, VMI professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Those interested applied through the American Physical Society platform in September and were notified in November of their acceptance.  

Only undergraduates — mainly women — attend the conference, Topasna said.  

“This gives them a community in which they feel comfortable to share and learn from experiences as a woman STEM major,” she said. “It is a great learning experience outside VMI’s comfort zone. For many, it is the first time they attend a professional conference. They have the opportunity to attend workshops and plenary talks and to hear from professors, researchers, and graduate students.” 

At the conference, cadets were able to hear from professional women about their career paths and life experiences; sharing how they overcame challenges and became successful. Topasna said she worked with cadets on their resumes, which proved helpful with the conference’s career fair where participants could learn about internships, graduate school, and career opportunities. It also provides good networking opportunities.  

“Although the conference is sponsored by the physics society, undergraduates from other disciplines can and do attend; it emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of STEM fields and of research,” Topasna said. “What else can be more inspiring?”    

Waters said she attended because it was an opportunity to engage with others interested in STEM, but also a way to step out of her comfort zone. It allowed her to engage more than she has in the past. 

“We had the freedom to learn and do wherever and whatever we wanted,” she said. “It emphasized physics and personal experiences, allowing me to see different perspectives on both subjects.” 

Fiorillo, who is the vice president of VMI’s WiSE group, said with her being contracted to the Army, she wasn’t sure how beneficial the conference would be. She was pleasantly surprised.  

“I met a professor from West Point who I connected with very well,” she said. “Since then, I have been in contact with her to try to obtain an internship in Alabama this summer, and I am very thankful I went to the conference because of this opportunity I now have.” 

The WiSE group has been active at VMI since 2015 — when the women cadet population was only 10%, with even fewer studying in STEM fields. The group welcomes any women who are interested in STEM fields. According to Topasna, the group provides cadets with the opportunity to connect with other women in STEM, develop leadership skills, participate in professional events and increase the visibility of women in STEM through outreach activities like open house, recruiting and more.  

“I am passionate about informing cadets and helping them explore the many opportunities that exist for undergraduates — being research, internships, workshops, and conferences, or graduate school and other career opportunities,” Topasna said. “I hope more cadets will participate in research, attend such conferences, and be active in professional groups and in their communities.” 

Laura Peters Shapiro
Communications & Marketing

VMI: Forging 21st Century Leaders